Yet there is little official data on the sources of the pollution, or on just how bad the air actually is. In announcing a new antismog policy this month, the Punjab government admitted it had “scant” air quality data, saying only that the official safety limit for PM2.5 particles, 35 micrograms per cubic meter, was “exceeded frequently.”
Naseem-ur-Rehman, a director at Punjab’s Environment Protection Department, admitted that the government had bought six air-quality monitors last year but never installed them — until last week, when a public outcry over the lack of data led to a scramble to set them up across Lahore. He said the department was “closely monitoring the situation,” but as of Thursday it was still not releasing air-quality numbers.
“This is a crisis of data,” said Ahmad Rafay Alam, an environmental lawyer and activist in Lahore. He said six meters were insufficient for a city the size of Lahore, let alone for all of Punjab.
In the absence of official information, some Pakistanis have taken matters into their own hands. One is Mr. Omar, who installed air monitors in Lahore, Islamabad, Peshawar and Karachi, where he lives. He has set up Twitter accounts to post the readings in real time.
Mr. Omar was inspired by his experience living in Beijing, where the American Embassy changed the debate about pollution years ago by publishing air-quality readings on Twitter. The Chinese authorities were ultimately prompted to set up dozens of air monitoring stations in the capital and across China.
“I realized that in order for air quality to become a national conversation in the way it had in China and to raise awareness about hazards and solutions, we needed the numbers to be out there,” said Mr. Omar, whose Pakistan Air Quality Initiative publishes data about air pollution and information about its effects on health.
Mr. Omar’s Twitter updates have prompted many of Lahore’s middle- and upper-class residents to buy air purifiers and don face masks.
Another activist, Aysha Raja, who runs a popular bookstore in Lahore, started a Facebook group called Citizens for Clean Air, to discuss possible solutions to the smog problem and put pressure on the government to address it.
“The political will is missing on the government side,” Ms. Raja said. “We the public need to act as a pressure group, as a watchdog, to make sure that they do something effective.”
The throat-burning, eye-stinging smoke plaguing Punjab has created problems beyond the obvious health concerns. On Tuesday alone, at least a dozen people were killed in road accidents linked to poor visibility in Lahore, according to the police. Major highways have been intermittently closed because of the visibility problems.
Thirteen power plants that run on fuel oil have been shut down since last weekend, and power generation has been cut back at four others, leading to daily outages of more than 12 hours in many urban areas. At one Lahore hospital alone, more than 500 people have been arriving daily with complaints of respiratory difficulties and eye irritation.
“Lahore looks like a dystopian wasteland right now, kind of like a scene from ‘Blade Runner,’” said Adil Ghazi, a business owner.
The Punjab government says it has taken several emergency measures, including a ban on burning crops and solid waste. It says that more than 100 people have been arrested for crop burning and that hundreds of factories have been shut down for not having proper emission-control equipment. The Lahore traffic police say that they have collected more than $50,000 in fines in recent days from drivers whose vehicles did not meet emissions standards and that two centers have been set up for checking commercial vehicles for compliance.
But environmentalists say a real solution would require much more serious measures: improving fuel quality, phasing out fuel-guzzling cars, introducing solar and other renewable sources of energy, planting trees on a large scale and improving public transportation to reduce the number of cars on the roads.
“There is a lot of media interest in the story and public anger right now, so emergency measures are being taken, but a long-term solution doesn’t seem to be a priority,” Mr. Alam said. “The sense of urgency has to be sustained.”
Most important, he said, the government needs to stop looking for others to blame, including India, whose crop fires Pakistani environmental officials have blamed for the worsening smog this year.
“No doubt smoke from crop burning in India is a big problem, but let’s not pretend we don’t have our own part to play in this crisis,” Mr. Omar said. “The government needs to acknowledge the problem and create awareness.”Continue reading the main story
“You know what’s the difference between Delhi and Lahore?” said Salman Taseer, as he stood on the terrace of a glittering dinner party. “They are the cars parked on the street below! Back home, there would have been rows of BMWs, Land Cruisers, but you still have your Marutis and Ambassadors,” he laughed. This was the early 1990s, the last days of pre-liberalised India, but the irony was not lost on Salman, who was acutely aware of his inheritance, of a nation carved out by powerful ruling Muslim zamindars and cigar-smoking gentry, while here was India, obstinately upholding democracy and self-sufficiency, not needing the status symbol of an imported car.
However, on every visit to Delhi or Mumbai, which was about once every five years since the ’90s, Salman would never fail to be astonished with the moving picture of modern India—of openness, forwardness, inclusiveness, and its commitment to freedom and survival. He instantly warmed up to Delhi’s swanky crystal-crusted drawing rooms but never failed to point out to questioning friends the extravagant and splashy Lahore and Karachi parties—the unmatched hyper excesses of dancing girls, overpriced Scotch and wines, and bejewelled socialites. Yet, he would say, as he met feisty women who had walked out of bad marriages, or live-in relationships, “This would never happen even in privileged Pakistan.”
Ironically, his first taste of the fascinating drama of New India came with a torrid love affair in Delhi in 1980. He had just written an acclaimed book, Bhutto: A Political Biography—on his late political leader, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who was hanged by the military dictator Zia-ul-Haq—and he arrived in Delhi for the first time as an adult, on a promotional tour. At a press meet, he met the journalist Tavleen Singh, and the two went headlong into a love affair that lasted through his week-long stay.
Salman returned to Lahore, to his wife and three children, only to discover that Tavleen was going to have a baby. It was easy for a brash Punjabi Muslim to carry along a consort, but it was a bold Tavleen who agreed to continue the relationship secretly for as long as they could.
The relationship did not last very long—even as the stopgap family moved from Delhi to London to Dubai—and after two years, they split. Were the reasons political or personal? Salman had fled to Dubai in the early ’80s, after being tortured in a dungeon in the historic Lahore Fort by the Zia regime, and was running two successful accountancy and management firms in the eye-popping Emirates.
The reason was there for all to see. Bollywood’s scandal sheets were feverishly writing about the very public love affair of its statuesque star, Simi Garewal, with a mystery Pakistani businessman in Dubai! In its typical lurid style, filmi hacks gave breathless reports of the stormy blow-ups and public confrontations between the trio, of love, infidelity and betrayal.
Salman was always bemused when asked if he had gone from radical renegade to heartbreaker playboy of the pleasure-seeking ’80s, but he was integral to the jet-set world of the new enterprising sheikhs. The Taseer-Simi Garewal romance was the stuff of the sheikhdom joyride in Dubai and Sharjah, the decade of consuming cricket, when the men in pyjamas played for merchant Arabs, betting cartels, mafia dons and businessmen. It brought the deadly fix of glamour, sport and business, libidinous partying and playing. As one socialite recalls, “It was intoxicating.”
She remembers Salman transfixed by an exquisite Simi who was both fascinating and foxy, with her Swiss finishing school upbringing and her Bollywood affectation. The long-distance affair lasted for a little longer than a year until Salman met his present wife, Amna, a relative of the Bhuttos, and proposed to her.
His frolic with India became more business-like in the later decade when on his return to Pakistan in the ’90s, he set up several business ventures, from telecom, media, internet and cable networks to luxury hotel, department stores and a successful audit firm. He visited India for collaborations with media networks like Zee, or for advisory meetings with luxury hoteliers. His appointment as Punjab governor fired his radical zeal—he emphasised on education and literacy among girls, lavishing aid, much to the disgust of the orthodoxy. He longed for a stable Pakistan, with educated, skilled innovators, rather than the ‘call-centre purgatory we have today’, he had always lamented.